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Paul “Pete” Keller ’49

At the age of 91, Pete Keller ’49 has overseen decades of conservation efforts within the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

 A Conservationist for

Many Generations

by John Keller with Beth Bailey

Around the turn of the 20th century, NYS forests had been cut thin as people cleared areas for settling, timber, and agriculture. In fact, the state was warned it would run out of timber within 50 years. Luckily, the idea of sustainable forestry, managing forests for long-term productivity rather than short term profitability, was put into action in 1929 and New York was the first to plant seedlings to replace trees that had been cut. Hundreds of millions of seedlings of Norway spruce, white pine, red pine, and Scotch pine were planted in State Forests as windbreaks and forest plantations.

The State Reforestation Areas were the beginning of today’s State Forest system. Many of the early reforestation areas were established on some of the least productive land in the state, such as abandoned farm lands with depleted soils and significant erosion issues. The Conservation Department began a massive tree planting program to restore these lands for watershed protection, flood prevention and future timber production. Today, these areas are covered with healthy forests. 
Learn more: History of State Forest Program

Pete held many roles within the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. In the 1960s, he started with conservation services at the Rogers Environmental Education Center in Sherburne, New York. As the Forest General Foreman, he put crews together to work marking timber for cutting. His job was to check to make sure these cuts were completed—and done well. He put together a team with a fantastic work ethic that was reflective in their respect for the work at hand. 

After four years in Sherburne, he moved to the Albany office and worked under Vick Glider who had been a colonel under George Patton. Pete learned a great deal from him about how to get things done. The boss’ mantra (just like General Patton’s) was, “Just get it done. I don’t need the details as long as it is done and done right.” 

In 1971 he was promoted to Regional Forester for Region 3 in the Hudson Valley, overseeing seven counties: Orange, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, and Westchester. During his twelve years of service there, he was promoted to Regional Director and worked under Commissioner Peter Berle. One legacy project Pete led was the environmental clean-up of the Hudson River. He created the Hudson River Estuary Program, a committee of local citizens who work with DEC to lead the continuing clean up and restoration of habitat along the Hudson, while providing multiple types of public access to the River. A major success of this program is the return of our national symbol, the bald eagle, to the Hudson Valley. 

As Regional Director he created the Heritage Task Force for the Hudson River Valley, which became the Hudson River Valley Greenway after his retirement. His son, Scott, now runs the Greenway, which has been instrumental in creating the Empire State Trail and Empire State Water Trail across the state. Together, they provide over two thousand miles of land and water based trails for the public to enjoy. 

Pete worked for Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, and built a great environmental constituency in the Hudson Valley. Pete would reach out to newly elected officials and invite them to visit and learn about the land and forestry in New York. His legacy was to keep politics out of protecting the environment (as much as possible) without shutting down people and their rights; to use resources responsibly; and to offer plenty of opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors across the state. 

In 1986, his staff nominated him for the Ernest F. Trad Award, the DEC’s highest honor awarded to an individual employee. In their seven-page(!) letter of recommendation, they mentioned his “very serious and long-standing commitment to affirmative action,” his “interest in the development of each person,” and his “lifelong commitment to public service.”

Pete created a lasting legacy, not only for the forests and people of NYS, but also for those he worked with along the way.

Photos of Pete from top to bottom:

— with his wife at his retirement dinner

— as a young man

— with classmate Russ Knope ’49 on a camping trip

— in his natural environment

— with a young man who grew up in the Keller house while his father was in Iraq

Editor’s note: Sadly we learned of Pete’s passing on June 11, 2022.